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Kluane Mountaineering – Canadian Down Gear Since 1971

“…Hey, you should check out Kluane sometime. They make great down parkas and they’re right in your backyard, too,” recommended my friend, Kyle, during my recent visit to his shop, North American Quality Purveyors, in Calgary.

“Huh? Who? I’ve never heard of them,” I replied, intrigued and admittedly a little embarrassed since my backyard is actually my hometown – Edmonton, Alberta Canada – where I’ve lived for the last twenty some years.

I’m a sucker for a good insider tip, especially when it hits close to home and in a way that is both so unexpected and yet so sensible. Such is the case with Kluane Mountaineering, one of the premier manufacturers for down parkas and mountaineering clothing in the world. While its home base in Edmonton may be undergoing metamorphic change as Canada’s third-fastest growing city (see the write up in Monocle), Kluane has kept the world out of the cold the same way for the last 40 years.

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To many, Edmonton’s known for its industrial business, unforgiving winters, and yes, a really big shopping mall. In the apparel and clothing realm, the city has a budding group of designers and several long-standing outposts, but it’s suffered a couple of blows over the last few years. Japanese menswear stalwart, Haven, shuttered its Edmonton location in 2014 and more recently, decades old vintage clothing retailer Divine Decadence quietly closed up shop for good.

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But when you look outside, it makes perfect sense for Kluane to headquarter in E-town. Canadians are known for their friendly nature, sometimes to a fault (or so I’ve been told!), not the least of which are Edmontonians. Our winters might suck, but the people here are humble, hard-working, and have a good sense of humor; hence the clever “Still In Edmonton” collection. Not to mention our location as North America’s northernmost city with temperatures that can dip as low as -30°C, it’s completely logical to discover Kluane right where they are.

The History of Kluane Mountaineering

Kluane (pronounced “clue-AW-nee”) is named after the National Park in the Yukon Territory which hosts Canada’s highest mountains. The idea for the brand was hatched in 1971 by two law students at the University of Alberta, John Faulkner and Jim Brown. The pair couldn’t afford high-quality sleeping bags for personal travel, so they took it upon themselves to make their own in Jim’s mother’s basement. Word spread quickly about their newfound craft and they soon sold those down bags, and a couple more, and a couple more until they had a loyal customer base. In 1973, John and Jim made the leap from side project and incorporated the business.

The early days of Kluane with co-founder, Jim and John, on the far left and right.

The early days of Kluane with co-founders, Jim and John, on the far left and right.

They made a point to fine tune wherever they could, constantly tweaking the construction, style, and overall quality of their bags with each production cycle. Kluane eventually moved into a larger commercial space on Edmonton’s famed Whyte Avenue, expanded into other product lines (down jackets, vests, quilts, booties, gaiters, chaps–whatever you needed to stay warm outside), and expedited production by hiring a few seamstresses.

One of the key hires was Ludmila “Lucy” Osedowsky. Lucy was the former production manager at a local Levi’s jeans factory previously operated by another local, now defunct denim brand, Great Western Garment Company. Her contributions were instrumental as she streamlined production and helped the brand reach new heights without compromising quality. Shortly after she joined, she bought in as a co-owner and ran the business up until December 1, 2006, when she passed the torch to current owner, Betty Squires.

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Kluane’s current owner, Betty Squires, busy behind the machine.

As the outdoor apparel market grew through the late 70s and early 80s, so did Kluane’s popularity. Outdoor enthusiasts aside, fans of their technical designs included government agencies, oil workers, expedition teams, media correspondents, and even the Canadian Mountain Ranger Service. Their stable of down filled garments drew so much attention from the alpinism and mountaineering community that by the late 80s, their products had been used on every continent and made it to nearly every mountain top in the world, including Mt. Everest.

Reaching even higher heights - just a sampling of Kluane's gear and satisfied customers in the field.

Reaching even higher heights – just a sampling of Kluane’s gear and satisfied customers in the field.

Through all of the growth, Kluane remained steadfast to their vision: creating the best quality and highest functioning mountaineering gear and garments possible. Every single one their products isn’t just constructed with durable, locally-sourced materials, it’s also custom made-to-order, one at a time, and 100% by hand. This is how the company started and this is how they still operate to this day.

Kluane has never been shy about where they stood either. As seen in the prologue of their 1975/76 product catalog (which set the tone for future books):

Kluane Mountaineering started with the idea that our gear should reflect our concern for quality and function and our belief that things should be made properly or not at all. So, we began making our sleeping bags slowly, carefully, one at a time, using methods which resulted in a better bag but were ill-suited to mass production.

In the few short years since then, backpacking and climbing have grown into multi-million dollar industries. There has been a mind-boggling proliferation both in the number of manufacturers and in the sheer volume of equipment produced. Most well-known makers of outdoor equipment are now owned by industrial conglomerates (although the Madison Avenue types who prepare their catalogs try to foster the belief that the places are still being run by good down home folks).

The inevitable result of this trend has been an inexorable decline in the personal commitment of the makers and sellers of wilderness gear. One now goes into a backpacker’s supermarket to be greeted by the staff who may never have used the equipment they sell. The products increasingly manifest the same syndrome. That mark of the care of the maker for his work which used to characterize the best hiking and climbing equipment is being lost in the rush to produce.

Where does that leave us? Well, making our gear the same way we always have: custom made, to order. Out of step with the world. Our production methods haven’t altered and we still use the same premium quality materials despite the greatly increased cost and sometimes less than adequate availability of the downs and nylons we specify.

We will never compromise the quality of our products for the sake of increased production. The support for our approach has been very warm and our customers have accepted the inevitable delays that our way of doing things cause.

Our best wishes to you in all of your outings. Take care of the wilderness. We hope that our products will contribute to your joy.

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A few of Kluane’s catalogs ranging from the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

Kluane in Recent Years

Through the 90s and 00s, everything was business as usual until an email hit their inbox in May 2004 from Ryan Keenan, the then Sales Director and Product Manager for Meg Company (better known to many through its sub-brands: Yuketen, Monitaly, Epperson Mountaineering, and Chamula). No stranger to the world of heritage, Meg Company had caught wind of Kluane through their website and Keenan was keen to explore a collaboration line.

Early-stage concepts of an Kluane Mountaineering x Monitaly Inner Parka Jacket.

Early-stage concepts of a Kluane Mountaineering x Monitaly Inner Parka Jacket.

After some back-and-forth and careful planning, the two sides were set to create a limited run of Inner Parka Jackets and vests for Monitaly, such as the Hunter Down Vest pictured below. Shortly thereafter, the special collection could be found for a few years in select stockists across Asia and Europe. Although the two are no longer working together and production has been brought to a halt, you may be able to find some of their pieces floating around a handful of retailers, online marketplaces, and forums.

Kluane Mountaineering x Monitaly Hunter Down Vest (image source: Monitaly)

Kluane Mountaineering x Monitaly Hunter Down Vest (image source: Monitaly)

Though the apparel industry looks very different compared to just a decade ago, little has changed for Kluane. Betty Squires tells me that most of the production today is focused on garments than sleeping bags and they do occasionally help a few retailers in town with repair work. However, while they’re always open to ideas and special projects, they are selective and feel no need to change their ways. Everything they make is still made-to-measure and individually cut (hot cut where necessary to seal the edges) using the original designs and patterns from the 1970s.

How Kluane Makes Their Clothing

Kluane has remained equally dogged in their construction methods and the materials they use. In 2006, they incorporated a 1 oz. lightweight, ripstop parachute fabric so they could pack in more down loft and make their garments even lighter.

Enduring quality is paramount to the company and they try to source as close to home as possible. Kluane still makes all of their tags in town, purchases nearly all their fabrics and hardware domestically, and of course, use home-grown down fill. The three types of Canadian down that can be found in their wares are Canadian White Goose Down (850 fill power), Canadian White Duck Down (750 fill power), and Canadian Goose Duck Down (650 fill power).

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An assortment of feathers and down on display at Kluane’s studio. The three down they use are in the three bottles to the left of the uber-luxe Eider Down on the far-right end.

When asked about what’s next for Kluane, Betty confirmed they have no plans for anything out of the ordinary. They’re less concerned with extending their product offerings or starting a Snapchat account, and more so with what they do best: protecting their customers from the elements with the best possible down-filled gear. One of their more recent projects was a custom sleeping bag for Hank Van Weelden, a past customer who is embarking upon a solo expedition to the South Pole.

The next time you find yourself in Edmonton, swing by their studio and meet one of the city’s and country’s finest. Or if an in-person visit isn’t feasible for you, ask and look around your city or town. Who knows, with a little digging and luck, you might very well find a Kluane in your own backyard.

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Kluane Mountaineering is located in the basement of 10324 – 82 (Whyte) Avenue in Edmonton, Alberta and open from Tuesday to Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 10am-4pm.